Category Archives: Kathy M. Newman

Which Side Is Culture On?

Last week I got a call from a reporter at The Guardian asking me to weigh in on the newest anti-union salvo from the Target corporation: a creepy, personal, direct-to-camera attack on unions, delivered by two red polo-shirt wearing Target “team members” (were these actually SAG member actors?) who talked in a chatty and informal way about how unions would destroy the “open door” policies, flexibility, and pleasant working environment already enjoyed by every Target employee. This new Target video has already drawn considerable attention, earning media reports in Salon and Gawker to name a few.

This Target video got me thinking: what is the role of cultural artifacts—art, film, and music—in contributing to attitudes about labor? How do cultural objects impact individual union drives, and how does anti-union propaganda impact wider culture attitudes about labor?

I am a professor of a literature and a cultural historian, so I am inclined to think that culture is powerful, and that anti-union culture has played a role in the decline of union membership we are all suffering from today. At the same time I wonder how much of the decline of unionization is more the result of labor policies and law—especially anti-labor laws passed by state and federal governing bodies because of the powerful lobbying by the wealthiest oligarchs in the land?

We often think that anti-union sentiment peaked in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was in full bloom, unions were purging their radicals, and labor/management cooperation was all the rage. But Nelson Lichtenstein assures us that for the last hundred years and more that the union has been portrayed as boss, bully, and thug.

cartoonHere’s a political cartoon from 1914 that implies that AFL demands were violently military and aimed at the very heart of American democracy.

But during the Depression, there was in upsurge in popular cultural support for labor—what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. The 1930s and the 1940s saw an outpouring of pro-labor culture, from the positive depictions of the taxi-cab strike in Waiting for Lefty, to proletarian novels like Christ in Concrete and In Dubious Battle, to the pro-labor film The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and, of course, the rise of the pro-labor folk song tradition with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White.

What about the rest of the last century? As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the American working class has long been a “silenced majority”—mostly invisible in news reports, mass-market magazines, films and television programs alike. Roseanne Barr, who starred in one of the most popular working class sitcoms in TV history (Rosanne), said that: “Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing.” Other scholars agree, such as Pepi Leistyna who shows that working-class people have been much maligned on TV, Ken Margolis who argues that unions are “tarnished” on the silver screen, and William J. Puette, who writes that the media views unions through a jaundiced eye.

While I agree that unions are usually portrayed negatively in popular culture, and especially in film, I think the positive relationship between labor and mass culture has, at times, been ignored or forgotten. Mass culture is profit driven, so we suspect that culture always endorses whatever ideology is best for capitalism. But culture produced for the masses is complicated, because in order to appeal to working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the mass audience, culture must represent some ideas and issues that are important to that audience.

In my current book project (Striking Images: Labor on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s), I argue that there were more positive and realistic representations of unions and workers on film and television in the 1950s than we remember. The new mass medium of television sometimes depicted labor even more positively than postwar film. Teleplays like Marty (1953), A Man is Ten Feet Tall (1955), and Clash by Night (1956) had a more radical edge than their film counterparts (Marty, 1955, Edge of the City, 1957, Clash by Night, 1952). Even Ralph Kramden, on an episode of The Honeymooners, staged a rent strike.

What about the present? A recent poll shows that 51% of Americans approve of unions. While 51% may not seem like a lot, this number has increased 10 percentage points in the last two years. Have cultural factors, like the Occupy movement, the national living wage campaign, and Robert Reich’s powerful documentary Inequality for All, helped Americans to view labor more sympathetically? Have they won out, despite intensified anti-union campaigns, with films like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down,which argue that teacher unions have ruined American public education, the anti-UAW campaign launched in Tennessee, not by Volkswagen but by Southern Republicans, and the continued press by the national “Right to Work” campaign?.

Perhaps culture isn’t on one side or another. Perhaps it is the battlefield itself. The skirmishes are everywhere. Though Republicans helped to tank the union drive at Volkswagen last month, P-Diddy and Danny Glover are helping Nissan workers in Jackson, Mississippi in their current union drive. In 2012, when Scott Walker’s anti-union policies were on the national stage, the Irish punk band Dropkick Murphys refused to allow Wisconsin Republicans to use their song “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” in Republican shows and videos. Recently in Pittsburgh, the rapper Jasiri-X wrote a crowd-energizing song for the Make it Our UMPC campaign called “People Over Profits.”

At the same time, in our creation, enjoyment and promotion of pro-union culture we cannot blind ourselves to the crippling role that labor law plays in the difficulties faced by unions, union organizers, and the tens of thousands of workers who want to join unions but cannot (yet) at Walmart, fast food restaurants, and Target. The worst thing about the Target video is not its slick production values or its horrible, falsehood-laden script, but the fact that it is perfectly legal for Target to force all of its employees to watch it on company time.

Kathy M. Newman

Sing Out! Lessons from the Extraordinary Life of Pete Seeger

Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.

Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the South, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs.

Embrace the relationship between music and social movements. Seeger believed that if you could get a crowd to join in a song, you could get a crowd to join in a movement. Like his father, Charles Seeger, who argued that “to make music is the essential thing—to listen to it is an accessory,” Pete Seeger believed that song brought the individual out of the self and into something larger: “I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in—as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Of course, Seeger could have chosen other vehicles for participation, but he believed that there was something special about songs. “Songs,” he explained, “are a way of binding people to a cause.”

It’s OK to be middle class. Seeger came from a family of “doctors, shopkeepers, and intellectuals.” His parents were also classically trained musicians who divorced when he was young. But even Seeger’s step-mother encouraged him, noticing that he had a special talent for “song leading.” Seeger went to a boarding school in Connecticut, and, later, Harvard, which he did not like. After Harvard, Seeger made the transition from scholar of working-class culture to maker/participant. The Almanacs were so named because every working-class home had two books: a bible for the next life and an almanac for this one. Seeger’s next band, The Weavers, was named for a play by German author Gerhart Hauptmann about a group of Silesian (now Poland) weavers who rebelled against the mechanization of their craft in the 1840s. Seeger, who was not from a working-class family, was a champion of workers, workers’ folk traditions, unions, the labor movement, and the dignity of work. Moreover, he was embraced by workers wherever he went, from the CIO struggles in Pittsburgh and Detroit in the 1940s, to the postal workers organizing against the hiring of non-union workers in 2014.

Make stuff with your own hands. On the other hand, perhaps, Seeger might have been a voluntary member of the working class. In the 1940s, he bought a piece of land next to the Hudson River for $1700.There he built his own log cabin. It took him several tries to get the giant stone fireplace right, but as he was finishing it he placed a few of the rocks thrown at him in the infamous Paul Robeson/Peekskill riots in the structure as a reminder. To build furniture for the house, Wilkinson writes, Seeger scavenged the wood from abandoned packing crates in New York City on his way home from singing gigs. By mastering the world with his hands, Seeger was able to connect the future of the human race to the future of the planet: “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

You have to choose sides, but you can have as many causes as you like. Seeger embraced every progressive American cause, from the labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, to environmentalism, the anti-war movement, the AIDs epidemic, and even the 2011 Occupy Movement. There were songs that explained how to negotiate and use a union to improve your life on the job (Talking Union Blues) and songs about union towns, their smog and their devotion to the CIO (Pittsburgh). There were songs about how to build stuff with your own hands (If I had a Hammer) and songs about how to keep hope in the face of racial oppression (We Shall Overcome). There were songs about heroic and legendary black workers (John Henry) and songs about women union organizers (Union Maid) and songs about how America belongs to all of us (This Land is Our Land). There were songs about the Hudson river, which he was instrumental in cleaning up (Sailing Up my Dirty Stream), and songs about the Vietnam war (Waist Deep in the Big Muddy), and even songs condemning Stalin (Big Joe Blues).

You can have a long, productive life if you do not define your success according to the market. Seeger famously testified in front of HUAC in 1955, refusing to answer any questions that violated his right to religion, free speech, and association. He has jokingly called this moment a “relief,” because the fame he was experiencing with The Weavers was overwhelming him. By contrast, for most blacklisted artists, the 1950s were a nightmare. Some betrayed their former friends and comrades, others died from the stress. Some left the country, some wrote under false names, and many languished without a steady livelihood for years. Seeger was undaunted by more than a decades’ worth of rebuff from HUAC, anti-communists who canceled his performance contracts and picketed his concerts, and TV executives who refused to let him perform on television. Seeger simply kept singing, accepting invitations from any group that would have him, year after year, until mainstream American culture finally accepted Seeger’s unique sound.

Think small. Perhaps you are a union organizer, trying to get a little more justice for your members. Perhaps you are a graduate student writing about worker struggles, or worker culture. Perhaps you have a bit of talent on an instrument, and you perform for money or just gather with friends to raise your voices in unison. Whatever you are doing, no matter how small it might seem, it matters. Seeger tells us: “Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Instead, he insists, “The world will be solved by millions of small things.”

Kathy M. Newman

Reading Capital: Books that Shaped Work in America

I teach American literature and media history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and for many years I have taught a course called Capital Fictions—a class in which we examine the ways in which literature shaped, and was shaped by, the US economy at the turn-of-the-last-century. Though I never teach all of the same novels twice, we often read The Jungle, Sister Carrie, House of Mirth, and William J. Weldon’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Of course, as a Marxist/Feminist/Public School Activist at Carnegie Mellon University, I often feel like an outlier—a radical humanist on Andrew Carnegie’s 21st century techno-robotic campus.

So I was pleased, and rather surprised, when I saw that the U.S. Department of Labor—in honor of its one-hundred-year anniversary—is assembling a list of books that shaped American ideas about work. DOL officials, after seeing a 2012 “Books that Shaped America” exhibition at the Library of Congress, were inspired to make a similar call for books about work in order to emphasize the “significant role published works have played in the shaping American workers and workplaces.”

In drawing attention to the DOL’s project on our blog, I am falling into the public relations trap expertly laid by Carl Fillichio, the senior advisor for public affairs and communications at the U.S. Department of Labor. While his book project seems progressive on the face of it, it has also been great public relations, as the mainstream media has done more than a dozen stories on the DOL’s project. Fillichio himself is a capitalist intellectual, coming to the DOL from Lehman brothers, where he was a senior vice president in charge of promoting the firm’s “thought leadership” and philanthropy.

The list of books that shaped American labor is long (102 so far) and eclectic, featuring such classics from children’s literature as Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Doreen Cronin’s radical story of barnyard animals that go on strike, Click, Clack, Moo. Some of my “Capital Fictions” are there, including The Jungle and Sister Carrie. Louisa May Alcott’s book, Little Women, is there (perhaps an odd choice, unless, like me, you decided to pursue the profession of WOMAN WRITER after reading it), along with the poetic Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In addition to some radical works there are some classics that staunchly defend capitalism, including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, William Bennet’s The Book of Virtues, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.

It is worth asking how books like these have shaped our ideas about work. Take Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. This novel gives us the perspective a young woman, Carrie Meeber, who comes from a small Midwest town to the booming city of Chicago in the late 1800s. Carrie tires quickly of factory work, and we see her struggle to find and keep a job. But then we chart her good fortune as she lucks into a career on the stage. She ends the novel a Broadway celebrity—successful, but still unsatisfied. The novel makes my students wonder: what is the secret to happiness? Is it hard work? Is it good fortune? Is it the ability to buy pretty things? Or is it relationships, education, and a search for deeper meaning?

Another classic on the list is also about turn-of-the-last century Chicago, The Jungle. My students recoil at the story—so grisly it is hard to believe that everything that happens in the novel could happen to a single family. A powerful worker, Jurgis, is brought down by injury and prison time; his strong friend and relative, Marija, is reduced to prostitution after many hard years in the packing plants; Jurgis’s youngest relatives become haggard, and, eventually die from factory work, and Ona, Jurgis’s wife, is raped by her boss and later dies in childbirth. But the students find themselves immersed in Sinclair’s world, and they respond to it with intelligence. When I let them pursue creative assignments, as I did this last fall, one student made a brilliant version of Monopoly based on The Jungle, and another student made a movie trailer for the novel that emphasized the dramatic sweep of the plot.

My students at CMU are from privileged backgrounds, and they often enter the classroom cynical about the plight of workers in the present and uniformed about workers in the past. But I find that through the reading of stories they become more open and more critical—of both the past and the present. Stories like Sister Carrie and The Jungle help to nurture their empathy, give them deeper understandings of place, and allow them to dwell in different times.

What do you think should be on the list? The project is accepting suggestions for additions to its list.

I hope you will agree that we need stories about work in order to understand what work means to us today and what it has meant to us in the past. We also need these stories so can decide what work will mean—and be—in the future. As Karl Marx (none of whose books are yet on the list at the DOL) reminds us, “the point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

Kathy M. Newman

Holiday Steals: Finding the Revolutionary Spirit at the Mall?

I hate shopping malls, but I found myself in one recently, on a family outing to see Disney’s new mega-hit Frozen. But then Frozen was sold out, and so we found ourselves actually shopping at a shopping mall.

I was walking past Wet Seal, a teenage clothing retailer that sells cheap trendy threads to girls and very, very young women. The name is particularly grotesque— suggestive of sex, or, at the very least, something slimy and endangered.

As I passed the store, I saw something that made me stop so hard and so quickly that my sister-in-law almost ran me over: an in-store advertisement featuring a woman against a red background, with her hand cupped out from her mouth, and the phrase “HOLIDAY STEALS” coming out of her mouth in rigid, blocky letters, framed in the shape of a megaphone and pointing towards the store. Wet SealI knew the instant I saw it that it was an homage to the Russian constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko—a riff on his advertisement for books (the original reads “Lengiz, books in all branches of knowledge”). Rodchenko created the ad in 1924 and the woman cupping her hand to yell was Lilya Brik—whom Pablo Naruda called “the muse of the Russian avant-garde.”

RodchenkoRodchenko’s ad, one of the most iconic designs from one of the most revolutionary art movements in world history, was now being used to hail customers as they lumbered through the mall. As one of my facebook friends commented, after I posted the images side by side, the Wet Seal ad was “the very definition of irony.”

We could read this bizarre Soviet style Wet Seal campaign in three ways. The first is the easiest. It could be nothing more than a rip-off—the ultimate pilfering by the capitalist establishment of the revolutionary spirit of early Soviet communist artists. A gross injustice to Rodchenko as well as to the movement he has come to represent.

The second possibility, and this I suspect is closest to what actually happened, is that some Wet Seal designer, fresh out of graduate school, decided to try something cool s/he had learned about Russian Constructivist design and thought it would be a funny wink to folks like me, who were either design hounds or revolutionary art historians or both.

But the final interpretation, and the one I am most partial to, is to read this Wet Seal campaign as a slip of the capitalist unconscious, which in the course of trying to sell things we do not need taps into our desire for real revolution, for real social and economic change. I find it interesting, for example, that the Wet Seal poster heralds “HOLIDAY STEALS” and not “HOLIDAY DEALS.” Is this poster, unwittingly, telling us to enter the store and “steal” what we like?

This utterly counterintuitive way of interpreting Wet Seal’s advertisement is based on Fredric Jameson’s seminal essay, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” published in Social Text in 1979. In this essay, Jameson argues that if something is popular (in this case Wet Seal clothing), and, if we are not brainless automatons, then mass culture must offer something positive to go with whatever repression it is handing out.

Jameson calls this the “fantasy bribe.” He argues that “all contemporary works of art—whether those of high culture and modernism or of mass culture and commercial culture—have as their underlying impulse….our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived.” And what it is that mass culture offers, Jameson asks? “Some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity.”

I am not suggesting that the Wet Seal advertisement injects the revolutionary spirit of the Russian intelligentsia directly into the brain of the mall zombie. But, perhaps unconsciously, Wet Seal is using some revolutionary zeal to sell its products because it knows that many of us crave collectivity and a better world—fairness, equality, jobs for all—the kind of world represented by Soviet idealism (though not necessarily Soviet society)—in the 1920s.

In the last few months we have seen hundreds of protests against low wages, targeting Walmart and fast food corporations, involving thousands of workers and labor leaders, suggesting that our “ineradicable drive” towards collectivity is not just a fantasy. Somewhere, buried deep in the capitalist unconscious is its opposite—radical socially conscious revolution. And sometimes we run across it at the mall.

So keep your eyes open this holiday season. Who knows what other revolutionary messages are hiding out in our cathedrals of consumption?

Kathy M. Newman

All in for Inequality for All

Two months ago I learned about the film Inequality for All when I saw a friend’s post about it on facebook. I rushed to the film’s website to find out when it was coming to Pittsburgh. But alas, there was no plan to bring it here. There was hope, however: I could submit a proposal to host a community screening. I would have to find money to pay the film’s licensing fee, but then I could show the film for free. I booked Carnegie Mellon University’s largest auditorium and started poking around the university and the city for co-sponsors. Now, I am proud to offer this invitation: please join us on Monday, November 18, at 6:15 PM for a screening of Inequality for All free and open to the public in McConomy Auditorium. Come early to meet some of the leaders of the Pittsburgh income equality movement and eat some pizza at 5:15 PM.

I organized this screening for three reasons. First, I wanted Inequality for All to be the coming out party for a new network of academics and activists in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Collaborative for Working-Class Studies. We came together this summer after a rousing session at the Working-Class Studies Association conference in Madison, WI in which Michael Zweig called for everyone in the room to return home and start centers for working-class studies. More than 40 people attended our inaugural meeting in Pittsburgh, most of them PhD students! You can join us and see what we are up to on facebook until we get a proper website.

Second, I wanted to work with other groups in Pittsburgh who have been making income inequality their central issue. Chief among these is the Make it Our UPMC campaign, which has been working for several years to pressure the region’s largest health care provider, UPMC, into being a better citizen of the city and into ending its union busting tactics and policies. Make it Our UPMC is the largest community sponsor of the film, and we will be passing the hat to support laid off UPMC workers at the screening. We are also working with the Thomas Merton center, a beacon of progressive activism in Pittsburgh, and the coalition for Great Public Schools, which recently issued a report that includes information about how income inequality is hurting K-12 students in Pittsburgh.

Finally, I wanted to bring college students, academics, activists and union members together in one room to talk about how inequality nationwide is playing out in Pittsburgh. According to Inequality for All, nearly one half of all Americans have zero wealth—no savings, no assets that outweigh their debts, no retirements savings or investments. Here in Pittsburgh, 12% of the population is living at or below poverty—an increase of 8.5% since the Great Recession of 2007. Pittsburgh children have been especially hard hit. A recent report shows that the number of homeless children in Pennsylvania has risen by 7% in the last year, from 18,531 to 19,905. Race is also a discouraging part of inequality in Pittsburgh. Compared with similarly sized cities, Pittsburgh is #1 in income inequality among African Americans.

Inequality for All is explicitly designed to help groups like mine have this conversation. It is organized like an economics lecture—in fact much of it is drawn from Robert Reich’s economics lectures at UC Berkeley—only it is the funniest, most movingly human economics lecture you have ever attended. Using well-designed info graphics, Reich’s own drawings (who knew he was an able cartoonist?), interviews with real workers, and a soundtrack that swells at all the right moments, Inequality for All has moved many an audience to laugh and cry. But Robert Reich and the film’s director Jacob Kornbluth want you to turn your laughter and tears into action. Their website gives three concrete ways for citizens to get involved in movements for greater equality, focusing on living wage campaigns, protecting and promoting unions, and investing in education.

For the most part, Inequality for All, which is being distributed by Hollywood’s powerful Weinstein company, has been embraced by the mainstream media. It won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at Sundance and has earned glowing reviews in The New York Times, USA Today, and Business Week as well as many progressive outlets. The film has opened in dozens of first run theaters across the country, and in some places activists have successfully lobbied their local theaters to show the film.

One more critical review, by John Lawrence of the San Diego Free Press, calls out Reich for not being radical enough, complaining that Reich is “basically a Keynsesian who would like taxes raised on the rich with the money spent to rebuild infrastructure thus providing middle class jobs.” Lawrence criticizes Reich for romanticizing the postwar period, during which  inequality in the U.S. was the lowest on record, but which was made possible by contingencies of global history that are not likely to repeat themselves. Lawrence further argues that Reich does not talk about economic democracy, the global cooperative movement, or public banking. Reich returns to education, and, especially college education, as the panacea, at a time when few things burden the middle class more than college debt.

Others complain that Inequality for All “preaches to the converted.” But as a wise mentor once told me, most preaching is to the converted. Preachers likely spend more time invigorating their members than they do making new converts.

Long a scholar of the ways in which the disempowered can use media to promote social change, I have rarely seen a mainstream media product with this radical of a message, in this appealing of a package. If you haven’t seen it, go see it. If it is not in your city, get it to come there. This film is a unique opportunity to have a conversation about real social and economic change. Inequality for All might convert a few, but, more importantly, it will give strength to all of us who are on the front lines of reversing income disparity in the U.S. and beyond.

Kathy M. Newman

Playing the Union Card: A Big Emmy Win for Netflix’s House of Cards

Some were disappointed when last week Netflix earned only a single “major” Emmy (for Best Director) for its first original series, House of Cards. But it took HBO five years to win its first Emmy, so Netflix’s win is a major accomplishment.

House of Cards is the first major attempt by a digital delivery service to create original programming. It is also an important notch on the career belt of a writer, Beau Willimon, who straddles the world of Greek tragedy and realpolitik. He has an MFA in playwrighting from Columbia, but he was also one of the original Howard Dean faithful and worked on campaigns for Charles Schumer and Bill Bradley. Willimon wrote a successful play about Washington politics in 2008, Farragut North, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film version of the play, The Ides of March (2011).

House of Cards has relevance to those of us who are interested in working-class issues and who also enjoy high quality television for three reasons. The first is what the show has to tell us about Washington D.C. politics. Second, House of Cards is interested in modern day unions, and it portrays them with surprising sympathy. Third, the show engages with questions of contemporary education reform, which is newly in the spotlight this month with Diane Ravitch’s best-selling book on the subject, Reign of Error.

On the political front, as Michelle Dean argues in The Nation, House of Cards, with Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as the centrifugal force of evil, plays into one of our “great myths of American culture: that the problems in its politics are fundamentally about individual morality.” Indeed, Underwood is amoral.  He believes that it is acceptable to murder when the creature in question (a dog or a person) is so pathetic that it doesn’t deserve to live. He manipulates a young reporter for sex, cheats on his wife (with her blessing, to an extent), engineers the downfall of a prospective Secretary of State (when Underwood himself is denied the position), leaks a draft of a bill to compromise its author, provokes the head of the teacher’s union to punch him so that he can accuse him of assaulting a Congress member, takes money from a large oil concern to help his wife’s charity, and the list goes on.

My only amendment to Dean’s argument is that House of Cards does hint that money lurks behind the individual amoral choices of an evil genius like Underwood. Corporations have candidates of both parties in a financial chokehold—or, as Frank Underwood puts it, with his trite homespinnery: ‘[W]hen the tit’s that big, everyone gets in line.” Everyone is corrupted by money and power, but Underwood is better than most at perpetuating his schemes—in figuring out who is weak, who is narcissistic, and who is stupid.

House of Cards is also surprisingly sympathetic to modern day unions. Early in the season we meet the rugged and sincere members of the Philadelphia shipbuilders union, who are proud that they sent one of their own—Congressman Peter Russo—to Washington. But Russo, snared in Underwood’s web, sells out his union brethren when he is ordered not to protest the closing of the shipyard that employs his friends and family. We are completely on their side when they beat the crap out of Russo when he comes to town seeking their continued support. We see how hard it is for working-class people to win via the ballot box—given the way that capital moves in the nation’s capitol.

House of Cards is even reasonably sympathetic to teachers’ unions, at a time (in real life) when teachers are under attack. The teachers come into the plot when Underwood is assigned the job of passing education legislation for the president, and the key elements of Underwood’s bill—performance standards, charter schools, and collective bargaining restrictions—send a (fictional) national teacher’s union out on strike.

In an unusual display of union solidarity, the teachers’ union convinces a group of unionized hotel workers to boycott Underwood’s wife’s charity banquet, and the Teamsters come out to protest Underwood in person. While Underwood is able to cool their ire with some plates of delicious barbeque, the appearance of a tri-union alliance, portrayed positively, in my “most popular now” queue on Netflix is not an everyday thing.

House of Cards gets much of the education reform story right. In Washington and across the country, education reformers from Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates speak from the same playbook—one that insists that the public schools are failing, especially in cities and poor communities, and that blames the failure on the schools themselves instead of on poverty, gun violence, and epic incarceration rates of black, brown and poor men.

While in House of Cards the only force fighting back against the bad education bill is the teachers’ union, in real life, a growing movement of parents, students and teachers are protesting the kinds of reforms that Frank Underwood is pushing his fictional DC. As Diane Ravitch explains in her new book, American schools are mostly succeeding, and, where they are not, poverty and segregation are the real causes.

If there are any idealistic heroes in House of Cards they are not activists but journalists. At the end of season 1 we see that Frank Underwood’s sexual conquest, the journalist-turned-blogger Zoey Barnes, might be the only outsider who has figured out Underwood’s nefarious long con that ends in the death of a fellow Congressman and the redemption (of sorts) of a high-end prostitute. House of Cards, despite its overwhelming cynicism, has a kernel of idealism. This is the idealism, perhaps, that drives most of us with a passion for writing, reading, and activism. And as long as we believe that we can make a difference—we just might be right.

Kathy M. Newman

Mad Men, Capitalism, and the Schizophrenia of Social Class

For most of the first five seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper, the super cool, super successful Madison Avenue creative director, has been something of a superhero, with the seemingly infinite ability to reinvent himself: in life, business and marriage. But in season six, which ended last month, Don Draper has been closer to the edge, as his tragic childhood has come back to haunt him, and, perhaps, to destroy him. He was born as Dick Whitman to a prostitute who died in childbirth. When Dick was ten, his father was killed by a horse that kicked him in the head. Dick was ultimately raised by his stepmother and an assortment of whores, hobos, and lowlifes.

Dick Whitman, while serving in Korea, swapped dog tags, and hence identity, with a dead soldier named Donald Draper, and started his life anew. In this act, he became the ultimate American, wiping the (tragic) slate clean and then moving up from used car salesman to fur salesman to copy writer to copy chief to adman god. And now he is unhappy, a double self, pathologically unfaithful to each of his wives, and, by the end of this season, unfaithful to his advertising partners as well. In one of the final scenes he loses the Hershey account when he tells a group of Hershey executives that as a child he was rewarded with a Hershey bar by a prostitute in return for pilfering money out of the pockets of the men who came to the brothel. “It was the only sweet thing in my life.”

As an advertising historian I’ve always been bothered by the Don Draper rags-to-riches plotline. The vast majority of admen of Draper’s generation were not only wealthy WASPS like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell, they were the sons of Episcopalian ministers. Jews, Italians, and other ethnic, working-class interlopers were successful in Hollywood and elsewhere in the culture industry. But the doxology of the advertising industry at mid-century was Protestantism, whiteness, and privilege.

Matthew Weiner has been a fanatic for verisimilitude when it comes to Mad Men, explaining in interviews how carefully he places period appropriate political events, songs, toys, and fashion in the historical timeline of the show. But no one, to my knowledge, has questioned whether or not someone with Dick Whitman’s impoverished and abusive upbringing could “pass” among the most elite members of American society and, eventually, become their conquering hero.
On the other hand it is always unsatisfying, and possibly a bit silly, to criticize a work of historical fiction for being inaccurate. Mad Men is much more about “us” than it is about “them.” So what can we learn by reading Mad Men as a parable about the present, rather than the past?

One African American critic, Steven Boone, has argued that Mad Men is Roots for white people. This is pretty astute. Mad Men has the highest percentage of viewers who make over $100,000 per year of any show on cable television—about 50% when the show debuted in 2007. Maybe we are looking for a mythology to justify our privilege and reassure ourselves that we have earned our elite status? Another interpretation reinforces this view. Another critic, Ron Ben Tovim, reads Mad Men as a new American classic in the tradition of Melville’s Moby Dick. According to this reading Dick Whitman is one part Moby Dick and one part Walt Whitman—an American superhero who creates himself out of the existential black hole of the Korean War. Of course, real life WWII and Korean War veterans had considerable help in moving up, from the GI bill, federal housing assistance, and veteran health benefits.

I would like to think that Don Draper’s morbid past as Dick Whitman appeals to viewers because it acknowledges that class inequality exists. Things are bleaker now in the US than ever before. While a real life Dick Whitman would have had about a 10% chance of making it into the super elite, today a child born in similar circumstances would have only a 5% chance of becoming Don Draper.  Perhaps we can read Mad Men as a commentary on today’s class inequality, which produces the schizophrenia of modern day capitalism. It seems clear that Don’s split personality is becoming less functional, and that he is teetering on the edge of a psychotic break.

But in the end, does Mad Men have a progressive message? Quite the contrary: the message of the show is that consumerism is the key to a better life, and audiences seem to respond. After AMC started airing Lincoln commercials during Mad Men, Ford sold “more Lincoln MKZ sedans in April than in the first three months of the year combined.” Over the last eighteen months, Banana Republic has been successfully marketing a line of Mad Men inspired clothing to its customers. Of course, only the show’s upscale demographic can afford the Banana Republic Mad Men Collection Tipped Shift Dress, now selling for $140.00 on Ebay—not to mention a brand new Lincoln MKZ.

Ironically, perhaps, most of us in the $100,000+ demographic of the show have not achieved the heights, penthouse included, of Mad Men’s most successful characters. At the end of the day most of us wish we could duck into a phone booth and come out wearing the grey flannel suits, shape wear, and sexy confidence of an era that exists only in the beautiful, twisted, and tragic imagination of Matthew Weiner and his fellow Mad Men creators. The world of Mad Men is ultimately a fiction—a fiction so compelling that we will have to wait one final season to learn the fate of the whorehouse foundling, Dick Whitman/Don Draper, and to find out what knit print is going to be all the rage at Banana Republic.

Kathy M. Newman

“Let’s Get To Work” — on the Weekends!

I started following Ed Schultz, the beefy, loud mouthed, pro-labor MSNBC anchor on Twitter a year ago last spring, when Pennsylvania education cuts were starting to reverberate across the state, forcing thousands of K-12 schools to cut art, band, music, drama, and science programs. Right around this time, the Pittsburgh Opera decided to give Governor Tom Corbett a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to the arts, and Pittsburghers staged a raucous rally to protest Corbett’s award and to bring attention to the cuts. Schultz caught wind of the statewide crisis and helped to focus attention on it by giving it ample coverage on his show.

Schultz, occupying the coveted 8:00 PM slot for two years, from 2011 to 2013, was the only MSNBC host who seemed to be following the school cuts as closely as I was. Watching Schultz I had the feeling—one I rarely get from the mainstream media—that he was speaking for me and the thousands of other “little people” across the country who were losing their jobs, their homes, their schools, their unions, their homes, their healthcare, and their dignity in the wake of the great financial collapse of 2008.

During his education coverage last spring, I watched The Ed Show almost every night, but over the course of Schultz’s tenure at MSNBC I didn’t watch as often as I should have, and now I feel bad. In March of this year Schultz announced he was moving to 5:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays later in the spring. He claims that he “raised his hand” for the assignment, but it’s hard to believe that he would give up a prime time weekday slot, voluntarily, for a weekend gig.

Schultz, admittedly, doesn’t look or sound like a lot of the other hosts on MSNBC. He’s 59, barrel chested, and a former football player. He was an All-American quarterback at Minnesota State University in the 1970s, played as a free agent for the Oakland Raiders, and had a short stint with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Canada. In 1982, Schultz became a sportscaster for KTHI-TV, in Fargo, North Dakota, and started calling the radio play-by-play for North Dakota State University football games. He didn’t broadcast his political opinions until the 1990s, when he started adding political commentary to his sportscasts. Then, he started broadcasting “on location” in economically depressed American towns. Oddly, Schultz stayed No. 1 in his market for 10 years, “despite the fact that [his] political views changed radically—from conservative to progressive—during that time.”

As Schultz tells it, his second wife, a nurse named Wendy, was the one who brought him out of what he describes as his “right-wing darkness.” She introduced him to homeless people and veterans where she worked, and she encouraged him to meet with struggling Dakota plains farmers face to face. By 2009, Schultz had a successful radio show, The Ed Schultz Show, on the Jones network.  MSNBC first tapped him to host a 6:00 pm show, then a 10:00 pm show, and then moved him to the coveted 8:00 pm slot when Keith Olbermann left in a blaze of rage and bluster.

During his time at MSNBC, Schultz has put his foot in it at least once. In 2011 he called Laura Ingrahm a “right wing slut.” He quickly made an on-air apology and took a week off the air, without pay, as penance. But most of the time, Schultz has been a rare champion of the working class, taking his anchor desk to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan as these rust belt states have fought off attacks from Scott Walker, the Koch Brothers, and the Ohio supporters of SB 5, a severely anti-union bill that was signed into law and then reversed by Ohio voters—with the help Schultz’s powerful 8:00 pm newscasts. As Schultz explained in an interview with the AFT, “we’re . . . staying focused on the plight of the workers, on outsourcing, privatization, the loss of collective bargaining rights, cuts to wages, on the attacks on workers, and working on solutions that will help the working class in this country.”

Was Ed Schultz sidelined, or did he go willingly? There are conflicting accounts. This blogger speculates that Schultz was pushed out because he could not make a dent in audience attracted to the Bill O’Reilly Show, Fox’s 8:00 PM behemoth. But according to The Daily Beast, it was Schultz’s idea to move to the weekend. He still does his radio show every day, and he told his boss at MSNBC, Phil Griffin, that he wanted to spend more time with his wife, who has recently undergone treatment for ovarian cancer, at their home in Minnesota.

Ed Schultz’s replacement is no slouch—the eggheady Nation-affiliated Chris Hayes, who created a loyal following for his weekend show, Up with Chris Hayes, over the last two years. The charm of Up was that Hayes interviewed small groups of super smart people about things they had written books about, and then wowed his audience with his ability to understand everything that his guests were saying, weave it together into a narrative, and, sometimes, cut people off and referee.

Hayes is also not completely alienated from the working class. He explained to Politico that he “grew up in the Bronx,” the son of a teacher (his mother) and a community organizer (his father). In 2012, his brother worked as a paid organizer for the Obama campaign. “I come from a working-class background,” explained Hayes. “My first job was as a labor reporter for a socialist newspaper in the Midwest, called In These Times.” Hayes insists that he has a “genuine awe and admiration” for Schultz’s focus on working-class and labor issues, and he says wants to continue the conversation that Schultz started.

But Hayes has more of a challenge ahead then just paying homage to the working class. Hayes’s Up formula of intelligent conversation with learned professors, sitting Congressional representatives you’ve never heard of, and double or triple the number of women of color and/or gay and lesbian guests than we see on the other networks, might not play well in prime time. Hayes simply will not have as much time to talk, or to listen, as he did before. As Inside Cable News argued, the secret formula that made Up so great “is nontransferable.” Will Chris Hayes find a new way to be the bleeding-heart brainiac—in 47 minutes—that made Up so watchable?

Part of the problem here may be one of demographics. Did Ed Schultz attract an older, bluer-collar, and less affluent audience than Chris Hayes did? Does Hayes, with his fashionable specs, wry humor, and baby face (he’s only 34), represent the kind of affluent, college-educated viewer that MSNBC wants to attract? Is the working class in the US in decline—so much so that they are not even sought after as an audience for the only liberal cable news outlet on the dial?

Regardless, the MSNBC staff is probably scrambling over at Hayes’s new show, All In, because its ratings have not been great—worse than what Schultz used to pull in. But as political blogger Jason Easley has argued, MSNBC has “time on its side.” While FOX might continue to dominate with older, more conservative viewers, cable news viewers are getting younger, and more progressive, with every passing year.

In the meantime, if you miss your daily dose of the pro-labor grizzly bear, Ed Schultz, check out The Ed Show online or at 5:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday. Schultz claims he will use the freedom of his new schedule to spend more time on the road, talking to the working-class people he continues to see as his special cause. And he still starts every show with his signature tag line “Let’s Get to Work.”

Kathy M. Newman



How the Working Class Gets Schooled

I just returned from a rousing three-day street corner teach-in called “Occupy the Department of Education,” held in Washington DC. I wanted to occupy the DOE because, for me, what started as a fairly straightforward involvement in a movement against massive education cuts in Pennsylavnia has evolved into a sense of urgency that we must reverse the damage that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and corporate education reforms are doing to public education.

This week my nine-year old son will be “opting out” of the high stakes test given in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (the PSSA).  The test is used to grade my son’s school on its annual progress (Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by NCLB). I wrote an editorial about my decision to have my son opt out of the test, which has been seen and/or shared by at least 50,000 people in the last week. A companion piece at a lively blog called The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post is also generating considerable traffic. Apparently, I’m not the only parent who’s concerned about high stakes testing.

Many of those parents are, like me, middle class.  But the emerging movement against school reform might be even more important for the working class.

My son’s school, Pittsburgh Linden, is a magnet school in Pittsburgh’s East End, one of the wealthier parts of the city—near the universities and the hospitals. Because it’s a magnet Linden students come from at least six different zip codes and from a variety of racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. 70% of the students are African American, Asian, Hispanic, or two or more races, while the remaining third are white. About 35% qualify for the federally funded lunch program, suggesting that despite the tony neighborhood, many of the students come from poor and working-class homes.

When NCLB was enacted the rhetoric was about fixing schools that served the poorest and most disadvantaged students. But a decade into NCLB, it is clear that high stakes testing is not improving our schools. These standardized tests are being used to assess the student, the teacher and the school, and depending on the outcome, they may be punished or rewarded.

But even before any formal punishments, these tests are forcing a narrowing of the curriculum. At Linden and at thousands of public schools across the country, much of the school day is devoted to pre-tests, practice tests, test prep, and test taking strategies. State budgets cuts have made the situation even worse, and the combination has left my son and many others without band this year (he was going to start the clarinet), and with many fewer hours of library and music each week. Middle-class kids (including my own son, who is learning piano) might get music lessons outside of school, but for working-class students, the narrowed curriculum cuts off their opportunities.

About a week before the testing starts, the hallways and classrooms are often stripped bare. The PSSA guidelines require that everything that could reveal an answer to the test be taken down or covered up, and sometimes schools, wary of cheating accusations, go overboard. One teacher was asked to cover the clock in her classroom because it was a “number line.”

Before the test many schools emphasize the importance of rest and good nutrition. I received a robo-call from the school district last week admonishing me to make sure my kids went to bed early on Sunday night. Some schools hold pep rallies for the PSSA and show videos using the soundtrack of Rocky to get the kids excited about doing well on the test. Why? Because the fate of the school depends on how the students score on this single test.

Once the test starts the atmosphere of cheerleading is over. Bathroom breaks are only permitted at certain times, and I have read reports of kids who were too scared to ask for permission to use the bathroom and who sat in their chairs and wet their pants during the test. One teacher wrote me to tell me about a child who opened her test and threw up on it because she was so nervous. She still had to take the test because it had been “opened.”

Increasingly, corporate education reformers (folks like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee) want teacher evaluations, firings, promotions, and pay to be tied to these exams. This means that teachers, who most people would assume are middle class, are increasing forced into a more working-class position (as Michael Zweig has argued) in which they have less control over what they teach or how they are credentialed and evaluated.

So what are the consequences of high stakes tests on poor and working-class children? Numerous studies (such as this one) have shown that parents’ income is the largest predictor of how a student will perform on a standardized test. According to these studies, teachers rarely have more than a 10-15% influence over how an individual student will perform. In other words, lower-income children are handicapped out of the gate. And so are their schools. It also means that poor and working-class children are more likely to have their schools closed.

School closings often have a devastating impact on the communities that are centered around them, and they don’t improve academic opportunities for the students at the closed school. This study, for example, argues that students who are assigned to schools farther away from home participate less in after school programs, and their parents are less involved.

Ironically, perhaps, schools themselves can provide a sense of home to the poorest students. One study found that 10% of students in a Chicago school that was closed were homeless. What was it like for them to lose their homes, and then their schools? And what will happen to them in the fall if Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel succeeds with his plan to close another 50 schools?

Schools that serve the least privileged students in the US are also the ones most  likely to have young, less-well trained, and inexperienced teachers. Programs like Teach for America lead to what experts call the “churn and burn” phenomenon, in which idealistic young teachers are sent to low-income, often low-performing schools and just as quickly leave the profession—forever.

In other words, the gnarly combination of high stakes tests, recessionary state budget cuts, schools closings and the de-professionalization/de-unionization of the teaching profession are hurting poor, minority and working class children the most.

But a growing number of students, parents and educators are fighting back. On April 9th, Newark high school students are walking out of their classrooms to confront the politicians who are cutting the education budget. High school students in Rhode Island are boycotting their high stakes tests. Teachers in Seattle are refusing to administer a standardized test called the MAP. Established groups like Parents across America and a wonderful new organization, The Network for Public Education, are working at the local and the national level to dismantle NCLB. Respected national education leaders like Diane Ravitch and Mark Naison are helping to turn the tide against a decade of harmful testing and meaningless reform.

One of the most inspiring people to speak at Friday’s protest was Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis, who linked her union’s 2012 successful strike to the upcoming Chicago school closings and to high stakes testing.  Towards the end of her remarks, Lewis asked why we keep submitting to the game of high stakes tests when they serve us so poorly. “What is the story that the winners tell the losers to keep them playing the game?”

I’m done playing the game, and I’m ready to change the story. Will you join me?

Kathy M. Newman

All Shook Up: What a Viral Video Movement Can Tell us about Global Class Politics

If you think the Harlem Shake is an annoying viral video trend, and possibly an offensive one, too, you are right. But the Harlem Shake is more than that. It has genuine roots in workplace culture and the teenage subaltern. Everyone from frat boys, to office workers, South African gold miners, and public school teenagers as well as Egyptian and Tunisian pro-democracy advocates see something in the viral trend to appropriate.

Since late January people have been uploading their own flash mob-type dance videos set to the rhythmic sounds of a 30-second electronic/rap mash-up called the Harlem Shake, recorded last year by a young DJ named Baauer. The first video to be uploaded was by a video blogger names Filthy_Frank, and it featured a bunch of dudes in latex costumes and masks dancing with an unfortunate combination of humping, pelvic thrusting, the limbo and the shimmy.

More than 100,000 Harlem Shake videos have joined the throng on YouTube, with combined hits of over 175 million. In the typical submission, one person, usually a man wearing some kind of helmet or headgear, starts dancing somewhere that doesn’t seem like a place for dancing—the bottom of a pool, a school cafeteria, an airplane, a fire truck, a locker room, a prison cell, or an office.

After about fifteen seconds a voice says, “do the Harlem Shake,” and a jump cut shows that the room is now crowded with crazy dancers—people in super hero costumes, green screen jumpsuits, Super Mario costumes, and stuffed animal head masks. They are jumping on chairs, humping the wall, humping each other, humping stuffed animals, and looking like aliens on acid. The videos are funny, containing a slight air of rebelliousness. It always seems as if the lone dancer has magically recruited an entire flash mob of crazy, uninhibited party people. These videos convey a feeling of freedom from—if nothing else—boredom.

Recently, the viral phenomenon has come under fire. Students in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida have all been suspended for filming Harlem Shake videos on school property, and, in one remarkable case, a student in New York City was suspended after merely talking about filming one. Joan Bertin, Executive Director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, has asked schools to stop suspending students for what she sees as a relatively harmless pursuit: dancing.

In one of the most life changing instances of the Harlem Shake, a group of Australian gold miners filmed themselves gyrating, humping, and doing the Caterpillar in the underground mine vault where they worked. They were promptly fired (so we can add dancing to the long list of bizarre things you can get fired for). Greg Harris, a spokesman for the Barminco mine company, explained the company’s reasoning: “An underground mine is no place for cowboys, clowns or fools. It’s an inherently dangerous place to work and workers are entitled to expect those working alongside them to respect the risks and abide by rules and regulations.” These miners weren’t exactly struggling financially before the firings, with their six figure salaries, but the firings show who has power and who doesn’t in the global extraction economy. A facebook page has been set up to call for re-instating the miners.

Meanwhile, a battle over what the Harlem Shake is, and who owns it, has been brewing closer to home. Last week Melissa Harris-Perry, a former Princeton professor and a member the talking eggheads crew at MSNBC, ranted about the viral perversion of what she explained was an authentic Harlem dance tradition.

Indeed, according to many accounts, the original Harlem Shake began in the early 1980s when a popular amateur performer, Albert Boyce (Albee), regularly performed a shoulder popping routine at pickup basketball games in Rucker Park. Though Albee did not live long enough to see his shake go viral (he died at the age of 43 in 2006 from alcoholism), in a 2003 interview he claimed that his dance was inspired, in part, by how he imagined Egyptian mummies might dance. “They was all wrapped up and taped up. So they couldn’t really move, all they could do was shake.”

Albee’s shoulder popping move became known as the Harlem Shake and was popularized on stage at the Apollo, in Harlem rapper G Depp’s 2001 “Special Delivery,” and in Young B’s 2003 “Chicken Noodle Soup.”

In May, 2012, a 23 year old DJ known as Baauer, born Harry Rodrigues, created a 30 second beat he titled “Harlem Shake.” His inspiration for the title had nothing to do with the dance: “‘A friend had shown me that track [from Philadelphia rapper Plastic Little’s ‘Miller Time’] where he says, then do the Harlem shake, and it just got stuck in my head for a while, so I used it.”

The resulting catchy 30-second track was a mash up of different dance hall sounds, as Baauer explains: “I just had the idea of taking a Dutch house squeaky-high synth and putting it over a hip-hop track…And then I tried to just make it the most stand-out, flashy track that would get anyone’s attention, so I put as many sounds and weird shit in there as I could. The dude in the beginning I got somewhere off the Internet, I don’t even know where, and the lion roar just makes no sense.”

The “dude in the beginning” is Reggeaton artist Hector Delgado saying “Con los terrorists,” or “With the terrorists,” a sentiment which does not seem to have any political relevance that I can see. Though Baauer didn’t know who he was, Delgado, in the viral media frenzy that has accompanied Harlem Shake, is, at least, getting his fifteen minutes.

The Melissa Harris-Perry critique of the Harlem Shake has its most trenchant counterpart in a short film made of Harlem residents reacting to the Harlem Shake videos. They say things like “What the hell is that?” “What the hell are they doing?” and “That’s not the Harlem Shake.” They are incredulous that anything so corny and poorly danced would bear the Harlem label.

The whole phenomenon raises some familiar, but still vexing questions. Who owns culture? Who owns the right to profit when cultural “borrowing,” “poaching” or “sampling” is involved? Who has the right to dance? And who has the right to make a short video on the job and post it to the Internet?

These questions now have a global context, as Harlem Shakers in Egypt and Tunisia have joined the viral movement. On February 25, a group of students in a wealthy Tunisian suburban school, including the son of a prominent opposition leader, filmed their own version of the Harlem Shake. In response, the Tunisian Ministry of Education suspended the school’s director. The students fought back, hacking the Minister’s website and “putting out a fake call for a mega Harlem Shake in front of the ministry’s offices.

In Egypt, the Harlem Shake has also become political. A group of Egyptian teenagers started a group called “Satiric Revolutionary Struggle,” and they filmed a Harlem Shake outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo. The group’s founder, 17 year old Mahmoud Tabei, said that he and his friends were “tired of the protests and the blood and the martyrs” and were looking for ways to “raise the hopes and spirits” of the democracy movement.

The Harlem Shake is not a simple, single phenomenon. It does have an interesting work place component, since many of the videos feature workers on the job, but is probably closer to an expression of global youth culture, since the vast majority of the videos feature high school and college students, or the kinds of young workers you might see on an episode of Comedy Central’s Workaholics.

The lesson, I think, is that viral movements are flexible. They can be used by a variety of people, for a variety of purposes. And when a viral movement goes as far and as fast as the Harlem Shake, it makes sense that the movement would begin to reference political and social issues. It also makes sense that tyrants, bureaucrats, and autocrats would want it stopped.

You are free to dislike these viral movements, but don’t dismiss them. Instead of shaking your finger, I invite you to shake your booty instead. As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”

Kathy M. Newman